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NEAL CONAN, host:

The debate over torture can provoke learned commentary, outraged opinion, and at the public theatre in New York, laughs.

Playwright Christopher Durang takes a cast of unlikely characters and throws them headlong into door-slamming hilarity that minds the previously untapped vein of comedy based on enhanced interrogation.

Christopher Durang's plays include "Beyond Therapy," "The Actor's Nightmare," "The Marriage of Bette & Boo," and "Betty's Summer Vacation." His new satire is called "Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them."

If you'd like to talk with him about his work and why it works, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Playwright and actor Christopher Durang joins us now from our bureau in New York. His latest production: "Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them" is playing at the Public Theater through May 10th.

Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER DURANG (Playwright, "Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them"): Thank you.

CONAN: And a comedy about torture? How did you come up with that idea?

Mr. DURANG: Well, I have to admit, I didn't sit down and say I'm going to write a comedy about torture. And I - you know, torture isn't funny. However, I've taken to describing the play a little bit to people as in the vein of "Dr. Strangelove," because nuclear holocaust wasn't funny, either, but somehow that film was.

And so it's about - looked at a different way, I actually think that the play is a comedy about how we as Americans have responded to the war on terror with terrors of our own and with wild disagreements among each other and so forth. But I can't defend saying that terror itself is funny.

CONAN: No. And yet, it plays a central part in the play. But it is presented in such an absurd manner, it is disturbing, nevertheless it's a little like cartoon kind of violence.

Mr. DURANG: Well, it is. That's true. And also, there's a character - can I tell a little bit of the story?

CONAN: Oh, absolutely.

Mr. DURANG: The heroine, Felicity, wakes up in a motel room with someone she doesn't recognize and assumes she's had a drunken one-night stand - not something she usually does.

And the man - it turns out they've gotten married, and that the man's name is Zamir, and - which he claims is Irish. But in any case…

CONAN: Funny, he doesn't look Irish.

Mr. DURANG: No, and he doesn't look Irish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DURANG: So she then tries to figure out how to get an annulment with this crazy marriage, but he gets very angry when she tries to do that.

So she goes to her parents for help, and her father turns out to be very, well, I guess, I'll characterize him as a right-wing nut.

CONAN: You wrote him, so you can characterize him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DURANG: And he becomes understandably suspicious of her husband and fears he may be a terrorist. And as the play goes on, it turns out that he is a member of the shadow government that all of us don't quite know about, and that he has inside connections to people in the Pentagon, and that they're doing a lot of their own interrogation and their own, you know, checking out who is and isn't the terrorist. And…

CONAN: It's one of those things you never thought would be outsourced.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DURANG: Well, and so he works with several other people in the shadow government, and one of them is a sweet Republican woman who has a crush on him, but, you know, otherwise buys into all his stuff. and they talk about John Hughes' torture memo, which was leaked to the president of 2004, which is why it's in my play…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: As opposed to writing it last weekend.

Mr. DURANG: (unintelligible). Right. And however, in the midst of it, I write intuitively and don't outline, which they don't like in Hollywood, but I'm allowed to do it in theater.

In any case, when I was writing the play, I wanted the woman, Hildegarde, to go to restaurant to tape a conversation. And I was going to write it so she misunderstood something, which she thinks is a terror attack, which triggers the kidnapping and the terror - I'm sorry, and the…

CONAN: And the torture.

Mr. DURANG: …torture, thank you. But I led into it by saying that a different operative - and they all have these silly names. The father goes by 3:10 to Yuma, and she goes by Scooby Doo. And there's another person named Looney Tunes, who is a member of the shadow government, and he has followed the possible terrorist to the restaurant.

But his nickname is based on his Tourette's syndrome that he keeps making Road Runner sounds and lines from cartoons, he can't control it. So he is part of the interrogation. There are two interrogation scenes. The first one threatens violence, the second one actually has some violence. And I must say when I watched it in rehearsal and then in performance, having this crazy character in a fedora who keeps going bee peep-peep and I taught I taw a puttycat, and all that kind of silly stuff, as you say it, it's cartoonish but it makes it makes it lunatic and farcical.

At the same time that it does attempt to, as writing in production, get to a genuine place of discomfort because in the second interrogation scene the father is going to - about to do some genuine bodily harm to the kidnapped person who isn't the terrorist and doesn't know anything. And he indeed tells the father what he wants to know. That he's made it clear that he believes there is an attack, that they misunderstood something he said at the restaurant.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. DURANG: So, anyway…

CONAN: So, he makes a false confession just to…

Mr. DURANG: Yes. And of course just in the news the other day we were reading that that entity from Seer sent the lawyers in the department of - I'm sorry, Rumsfeld's office saying that the bad thing about torture is that you get unreliable information, that people will say whatever they feel they need to to stop the pain. I mean that's a little bit common sense but…

CONAN: And you speak about it in a very matter of fact way. Obviously this is something that has concerned and outraged you over the years, yet you present your arguments against it in the form of a comedy.

Mr. DURANG: Well, I've always written comedy, I like to make the audience laugh. And I guess I wanted, I don't know, I just, it didn't cross my mind to do it in a serious way. I, by the way, did see the movie "Rendition"…

CONAN: Umm hmm.

Mr. DURUNG: …which I liked better than the critics did but that told the story in a very serious way and I thought a good way. I don't know, I've just always written comedy. The other thing about comedy is it gives you a sort of distance to stuff. It makes you, I mean, there's some breaking of the fourth wall where characters will discuss what's happening sometimes. And in the end of the play I don't too much want to give away exactly but the main character, the sensible daughter Felicity, who is only trying to get away from this incorrect marriage, when the play darkens into actual torture, she sort of insists that they relive previous scenes so that it doesn't end badly.

CONAN: You breakdown not only the fourth wall but the barriers of time and space.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So be prepared for, well, an interesting evening. Anyway, let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Christopher Durang, the author most recently of the play "Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them." 800-989-8255, Email talk@npr.org. And Rick(ph) is with us, calling from Woodburn in Oregon.

RICK (Caller): Yes, how you're doing today?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

RICK: Good, good. I have a comment and if there's time, a quick question. My comment is that I appreciate and I think there is lot of us who really appreciate you folks who use the light-hearted format to address serious subject matter and make us laugh a little bit but also get us to thinking. And I think that the - it becomes a little more thought provoking, maybe sinks in a little bit more when it's addressed in a light-hearted format such as that. And we really appreciate that.

Mr. DURUNG: Well, that's good to hear, thanks.

CONAN: And you had one other point?

RICK: Well, the only other thing was, I'm a truck driver, I drive over the road. It's very hard for me to figure if I'm going to be any place where I can catch a play. Are you going to be playing any of the truck stops?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There is a fourth wall you haven't considered.

Mr. DURUNG: You know, I have a night club where I sing. I should really looking into some trucks stops but it wouldn't be the same play.

RICK: Yeah well. We really appreciate that and…

CONAN: For your next overnight in New York, Rick, the Public Theatre.

RICK: Okay, okay. Alright thank you much.

CONAN: Bye, bye. Appreciate the phone call. Let's see if we can go next to, this is Jonathan(ph). Jonathan with us from Fairfax, California.

JONATHAN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

Mr. DURUNG: Hey.

JONATHAN: Yeah, you know, I just wanted to say, I was actually a little disappointed. I saw the show at the Public when I was in New York last week. And, you know, I just, from the get-go it was a little cartoonish, a little flip. And I had a hard time really, you know, identifying or sympathizing with any of the characters, you know. And so I felt like what could've really delivered more meaningful commentary, you know, on torture and on, you know the whole right wing mind set, it just kind of flew past, I felt like, most of the audience. And, you know, and I don't know, I also felt like there were some inside jokes about theatre and stuff and had - that also had a distancing effect.

But I guess the - my main thing was just that, yeah, it just didn't really hook me in. And I also felt like, the use of violence felt a little gratuitous to me, especially towards the woman - you know, towards the fiancee, whatever, the woman in the show. It just, it was hard to take and it didn't feel sort of justified or anything. So I came out of there disappointed and, you know, and I don't know. I just wanted to express that.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much Jonathan.

JONATHAN: Sure.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Bye, bye. Obviously some people are going to like it, amongst them I'd say the great majority of the critics in New York, Christopher Durang, really love the show. And it's somewhat, well, and I guess you're always…

Mr. DURUNG: I'm was going to ask him what violence he meant toward the woman. There's sort of an emotionally abusive relationship but not a physically abusive one. So, at least with the mother.

CONAN: We are talking…

Mr. DURUNG: Anyway but yes, you know, different taste of things. When I, once when I was young with my Plebian therapy, which you mentioned it, in an early preview we had an audience talk back. And most of the audience really liked it. And this one person just didn't. And at a certain point, I said, well, tell me what plays you do like. And I'm going to date myself, but the soap opera parody "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" was on and was a big hit. With Louise Lasser. And it's a very funny send up of soap operas. And I asked him if he liked that and he said, no, I hate it. And I said, well then, you know, I'm never going to write something you're going to like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Stay away from the Durang brand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Christopher Durang is our guest, the playwright and actor. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to Resina(ph), hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, from San Antonio.

RESINA (Caller): Yes, you pronounced it correctly. Thank you.

CONAN: Go ahead.

RESINA: I actually had a comment and I actually had a question as well. I wanted to commend your play writer for writing such a wonderful play. I think that's a phenomenal thing to do, especially in these times. I actually had a question. Have you had any negative or positive feedback from either one of the political parties? Obviously we've had such a controversial issue from the last office, i.e from the Bush administration, from what he has done. And I was wondering if you had any comments from either, again Republican or Democrats, that said, good job, bad job, with this play that you've put on, from either one of the political parties or anybody for that matter, again Democrats or Republicans.

CONAN: So have you invited John Yoo to the show?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RESINA: Pardon me.

CONAN: I was talking to Christopher. But go ahead.

RESINA: Okay.

Mr. DURANG: John Yoo is mentioned in the play. Well, you know, I have not had any official people from either political party say anything to me. I've had a lot of, you know, I guess I should be honest, I think it's mostly Democrats who would enjoy the play…

RESINA: Oh yes.

Mr. DURANG: …I assume…

CONAN: Not exactly going into the lion's den with this one.

Mr. DURANG: Yeah, right. And I've had some people just refer to feeling a sense of comic catharsis about it. Because as I say it is, ultimately it's about the war on terror, which was our last eight years. And not that that's over, and that the Islamic threat is a real one but…

RESINA: Yes.

Mr. DURANG: In any case, I have not, to answer your question…

RESINA: Okay.

Mr. DURANG: …had any official response from anyone.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

RESINA: Well thank you. Hopefully you will be getting that letter of recommendation from Obama and maybe you will get some…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think at this point, we all want to avoid any letters from the administration, any administration, ever. Let's see if we can go to Jesse(ph), Jesse who is with us from Conway, Arkansas.

JESSE (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

JESSE: I was just wondering, I wanted to get the playwright's view on a statement I have in front of me. It's Nancy Bradberg(ph) and he states that tragicomedy is an appropriate genre for our modern period because when we witness such works, the muscles of visibility are about the form and suddenly they freeze in horror. And I was just wondering if you felt like tragicomedy was like a new form of expression, sort of like postmodern irony? Or have you been personally influenced by other works in this genre?

Mr. DURANG: Well, you know, I think I like the idea of tragicomedy. Or what I sometimes - growing up I would have called black comedy. And I was influenced, I mean, to jump way back Voltaire's "Candide" is a very dark comedy and it's also cartoonish. But it ends, you know, there's terrible warfare and people are killed and then they come back alive as if they haven't died. And - or then I was very influenced by the British playwright Joe Orton who wrote very dark farces. And then mentioning "Dr. Strangelove," was I think goes back to 1962 is, you know, a brilliant comedy about the arms race between America and Russia and a worse case scenario whereby mistake missiles are launched.

Oddly, at the same time there was a serious movie, also good, called "Fail-Safe" with the identical plot but just told straight. And "Dr. Strangelove" which I think probably will live longer than that movie was so inventive and did make us see things in a different way. I mean, Peter Sellers as that crazy German ex-Nazi scientist is very unforgettable.

CONAN: And Jesse, he would not want you to leave without mentioning also (unintelligible) because structure plays a part in the back part of the show.

JESSE: Okay, Alright.

CONAN: Alright Jesse.

JESSE: Well thank you very much. This is actually a question for a final I'm taking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JESSE: And I was working on the dialogue and I was listening to your broadcast and I just couldn't resist. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Mr. DURANG: Sure.

CONAN: You are footnote now Christopher Durang.

Mr. DURANG: That's right. I hope you get an A.

CONAN: What are you working on now?

Mr. DURANG: You know, I'm not working on anything now. There's a play that I started around the same time with actually even a similar title in a way. It's called "Consensus or Should We Just Kill Each Other." And I'm wondering whether to continue with it because it's not about torture and it would be different characters but it is coming from the same feeling of, oh, gosh this blue state, red state anger between us, you know, is not yet healed. I mean it's greatly helped by the fact that the moderates went over to Obama and frankly saw through what was crazy and worrisome about the Bush administration. But, you know, listening to talk radio, you know, the other opinion is still definitely out there. Yeah.

CONAN: Have to end it here. But thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. DURANG: My pleasure, thanks.

CONAN: Christopher Durang joined us from our bureau in New York. His latest play is called "Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them." If you see it, grammarians, you'll understand. It's at New York's Public Theatre through May 10th. Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION it's overlooked and underfunded but epilepsy affects more than 3 million Americans. We'll talk about living with that disease tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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